Court rejects city claim on water from river

Federal judge rules Susquehanna panel has power to regulate use

April 01, 2000|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN STAFF

A federal court has rejected the Baltimore region's claim that it has an unrestricted right to slake its growing thirst with water from the Susquehanna River.

U.S. District Court Judge William N. Nickerson ruled late Thursday that the Susquehanna River Basin Commission -- a group representing the states of New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland -- can regulate Baltimore's use of the river.

The municipal system supplies 1.8 million customers in the city and five surrounding counties, mostly from three area reservoirs. But the city has tapped the river on an emergency basis many times during severe droughts, including last summer.

City water system officials argued that they had the absolute right to pump up to a quarter of a billion gallons each day. The state legislature, they said, had specifically exempted Baltimore from regulation by the commission in approving Maryland's participation in the commission in 1970.

Baltimore filed a lawsuit in the summer of 1998, after the commission insisted that the city was required to seek a permit before taking certain actions, including the construction of any pumps at Conowingo Dam.

Nickerson rejected Baltimore's claim of exemption from regulation. Any effort by the city to take more water, or increase its pumping capacity, Nickerson wrote, "would have the potential of causing adverse impacts to the basin's resources, particularly during critical drought conditions."

Tim Weston, a lawyer for the commission, said the ruling means Baltimore faces the same restrictions on use that apply to hundreds of communities in the vast Susquehanna watershed.

He said commission members hope the city will consult with the panel to plan future water needs.

"With the experience of the 1999 drought, I believe the state of Maryland and the commission are hopeful that Baltimore is planning improvement of its system," Weston said. "Last year, it's our understanding that Baltimore drew down its reservoirs and got dangerously close to ending up with shortfalls in various parts of its system. We were all lucky. It rained. But we know from experience, it doesn't always rain."

Lydia Duff, a lawyer for the city, said officials have not decided whether to appeal the ruling.

"We've just received it and we're going to be reviewing it," she said yesterday afternoon. "At this stage, we're really just evaluating what our options are."

She declined to comment further, except to say the issues raised "are reflective of the city's historical, visionary planning for its long-term water needs."

Historically, the city has taken an average of 5 million gallons of water a day from the river -- with most pumped during droughts. But a 1993 commission study predicted Baltimore would pump 10 times that amount by 2003.

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